Oh, to be a kid again. Back when I was younger, I classified the pasta I would eat each Sunday at dinner time based off of a few different factors:
- If it’s “pointy” at the end or not
- Whether or not it has “lines”
- “Straight” or “swirly”
- Whether or not I could twirl it around my fork
When I got a little older, obviously, even if my mind first went to those extremely descriptive characteristics, I took it upon myself to learn the actual names of the different types of pasta.
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Learning how to cook became a whole lot easier once I was able to quickly identify which kind of pasta shape I would need for my dishes.
Even though I’ve been cooking for a long time, I have to be honest, sometimes I still need a refresher on the different shapes. There are just so many that are so similar to each other, that it’s impossible to know everything.
There’s just tons of similarities out there, and it would take hours of studying inside of a grocery store to really nail them all.
Angel Hair vs. Spaghetti.
Spaghetti vs. Bucatini.
Rigatoni vs. Penne.
And a tale as old as time, Penne vs. Ziti.
Now I’ll go ahead and be straight up with you, I still get confused and have to think twice when I order any of the last three.
They’re all just so similar; I don’t even think some Italian American chefs really fully know the difference between Ziti, Penne, and Rigatoni.
I have ordered chicken, broccoli, and Ziti and been served chicken broccoli and Rigatoni, sat down for Penne and meatballs only to eat Ziti and meatballs, and seen spicy Rigatoni served as spicy Penne.
But honestly, I can’t really blame anyone for getting those confused.
Most of the time, I don’t even realize until well after the fact that the pasta shape was misnamed.
But believe it or not, those three types of pasta serve quite different purposes, and are all great for very specific recipes.
When someone says the word “pasta,” I can almost guarantee that the initial shape you think about is Penne.
Lined with ridges and cut diagonally at a sharp angle, this is the most common pasta shape in the U.S.A.
Penne is actually a lot more modern than you may think, originating back to 1865 when Giovanni Battista Capurro invented a diagonal cutting pasta machine. To him, these 1-2 inch pieces of pasta strongly resembled a quill pen, hence the name Penne.
Most of the time when you’re served Penne, you’re eating “Penne rigate” which translates to “ridged Penne”.
The Italian phrase, “Penne Lisce,” refers to Penne without any ridges and a smooth surface.
My personal favorite of the two is hands down Penne rigate.
I find that sauce sticks to Penne rigate much better than smooth Penne does, as it gets caught in the ridges and soaks right into the pasta.
Because of this, Penne is the perfect pasta to enjoy with anything from thin sauces to thicker sauces.
Here are some popular Italian dishes that you can make with Penne:
- Penne and marinara sauce
- Penne and bolognese sauce
- Penne alla vodka
- Penne with olive oil, broccoli and chicken
- Penne with sun dried tomatoes and sausage
- Lemon chicken Penne
- Pasta puttanesca
You might be thinking, “What’s the non diagonal version of Penne called?” Let me introduce you to…
If you’re eating baked pasta, I’d be willing to bet that you’re eating it with Ziti.
Baked pasta is the perfect pasta shape when you’re catering to a large crowd, which is what Ziti pasta is all about.
That’s because this extremely common pasta shape is found in most traditional Italian wedding dishes; specifically from Naples. The Italian word for bride is “zita,” hence the name Ziti.
Similar to Penne, Ziti is the type of pasta that has to be broken up, as it’s produced long and hollow.
The significant difference between Ziti and Penne, though, is the way the pasta is cut.
While both pasta types boast a common tubular shape, Ziti is cut straight on, whereas Penne is diagonally cut.
Also notably different is the texture of the pasta; as Ziti is 100% smooth (lisce for those of you who were paying attention earlier).
The smooth texture is perfect when baking cheesy pasta dishes, as it contrasts the thicker consistency nicely. Ziti is also wonderful for thick, creamy sauces or chunky sauces, as the tubular shape traps the sauce so there’s never a “naked bite.”
Some popular dishes that can be made with Ziti are:
- Ziti and meat sauce
- Pasta al forno
- Ziti and cheese (baked macaroni and cheese)
- Ziti and eggplant
- Baked chicken alfredo
- Baked Ziti and sausage
- Three cheese Ziti with ground turkey
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my 24 years of Italian eating, it’s that there seems to be a pasta shape for just about any purpose or occasion. Which is why it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Penne and Ziti have one other closely related cousin…
Last but not least, we have the perfect combination of both Ziti and Penne: Rigatoni.
The name Rigatoni, if it wasn’t obvious enough, comes from the word “rigato” which means, surprise surprise, “ridged.”
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that Rigatoni pasta is made with ridges down its side, which makes it perfect for adhering to freshly made thick pasta sauce and cheese.
Sometimes, these ridges are spiraling, but they’re always there.
Rigatoni is always cut straight on, and is sometimes curved around the ends, especially if you’re eating it in Italy. It’ll never be as curved as elbow macaroni, though. If the curve is present, it’ll be extremely slight.
The main difference between Rigatoni and the other two types of pasta is that Rigatoni is a lot bigger; it has a very large surface area. It’s wider and longer than both of the pasta shapes. However, Rigatoncini are derived from Rigatoni, and are closer to the shape of Penne.
Rigatoni is massively popular in its region of origin: Rome. According to Barilla, Italian director Federico Fellini was obsessed with this pasta.
In the United States, most pasta dishes from authentic Italian restaurants are served with Rigatoni. Lately, everyone’s been obsessed with Spicy Vodka Rigatoni. If you haven’t tried it, you’re seriously missing out.
Rigatoni is almost always used for the following dishes:
- Creamy tomato Rigatoni
- Rigatoni all’Amatriciana
- Rigatoni primavera
- Rigatoni and bolognese
- Pasta alla Norma
- Spicy vodka Rigatoni
- Creamy sun dried tomato Rigatoni
So what should I make with these?
It’s no secret that Italians have a variety of sauces that taste delicious with many different dishes.
Being an Italian American restaurant, we’ve been around the block a few times.
Between numerous trips to Italy and eating our way around the best of the best Italian American restaurants in the North East United States, we’ve curated some of our favorite pasta recipes for you to try for yourself.
Most of these popular pasta dishes can be subbed out with different varieties of pasta. For example, I almost always substitute Penne and omit the Ziti altogether in the Chicken, Broccoli and Ziti recipe. This classic dish is made with Penne or Rigatoni primarily, but for the sake of its original name, refers to Ziti in the title.
There’s plenty of room for creativity with these dishes, so don’t be afraid to try them out with different kinds of pasta.
If you give these recipes a try, let us know in the comments!